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City Staged Takeover of Artist Community, Lawsuit Contends

Bob Kronovetrealty
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Santa Monica

Santa Monica Apartments

Santa Monica College
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By Jorge Casuso

December 4, 2020 -- A staged takeover of Santa Monica's once-thriving artist community has left programs languishing and artists paying record-high rents, according to a lawsuit filed against the City last month.

In the lawsuit, Santa Monica Art Studios (SMAS) founder Yossi Govrin claims the City used a fraudulent Request for Proposal (RFP) process to turn over the vibrant hive of studios and galleries to the well-connected 18th Street Arts Center.

The 32-page legal complaint filed November 11 alleges Mayor Kevin McKeown conspired with 18th Street Executive Director Jan Williamson to stage the takeover of the studios housed in a Santa Monica Airport hangar Govrin converted in 2004.

In December 2018, the City Council rejected Govrin's bid to retain the studios and voted 6 to 1 to award a $1.25 million five-year lease to 18th Street ("Council Votes for Changing Guard at Airport Arts Community," December 21, 2018).

"The RFP process the city adopted was a complete sham, conceived to
enable the city to place a 'friend' of the current Mayor as manager of the airport facility," the lawsuit alleges. "The selection procedure established by the City was perfectly staged."

"All five panelists had personal and professional associations" with Williamson, who according to a recent Public Records Act request "participated in selecting" them, the suit alleges.

Only two of the panelists attended the November 19, 2018 hearing before the Arts Commission, with a third participating via video conference, according to the suit.

In awarding the contract to 18th Street, Council members said they had little choice but to abide by the decision of the expert evaluation committee ("City Council to Choose Operator for Airport Arts Complex," December 17, 2018).

The City said this week that it plans to fight the lawsuit, which it says has no merit.

In awarding the contract to 18th Street, City officials said that Govrin -- who had held the last master lease at the airport on a month-to-month basis since 2014 -- had been subletting the spaces at rates that are often above market.

The new leasing policy approved by the Council in March 2016 barred subleases, while a 2017 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the City requires non-aviation Airport tenants to be charged market rates, City staff said.

But Govrin's lawsuit alleges that "the artists are now paying four times more than what Mayor Kevin McKeown stated was appropriate payment."

It also contends that "under the new contractor, 18th Street, the airport art programs have languished, even before the onset of the coronavirus crisis in March of 2020."

"The new management is failing to provide artists (sic) any programs or vision," according to the suit.

"The City lost the best art establishment in the City, SMAS, which never received subsidies, lower rent, or grants from the city or state during its 33 years of operation," the suit states.

"SMAS was a fully self-sufficient entity that established a notable art center with over 600 events, programs, and more. It never evicted a single artist, even when unable to pay rent."

Govrin is seeking compensatory damages, special and general damages, exemplary and punitive damages and reimbursement of "the illegal expenditure of public funds," according to the lawsuit.

He is also seeking "restitution of all amounts by which Defendants were unjustly enriched as a result of their wrongdoing" and "for disgorgement of all profits and gains that Defendants obtained."

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